A bidding war for engineers

Headhunters call engineers at their offices to lure them away with big money and extra perks.

Engineering firms are guaranteeing jobs to college students – even before they start their senior years.

And some desperate Charlotte companies are offering thousands in bonuses for each new engineer their employees bring in.

Even though the economy is cooling, engineers are in high demand, and the competition to hire them has grown fierce. The experienced ones are the most sought-after, but with graduation rates down 20 percent over the past two decades, there aren't enough to go around.

Driving the competition in Charlotte is a boom in power plant construction around the world. Local firms need hundreds of engineers of all stripes to help bid on the tens of billions of dollars in projects coming online.

The work is global, but Charlotte has become a central player. In the past year, Fluor Corp., The Shaw Group and URS Corp. have located or expanded their power-plant divisions in Charlotte. Nuclear plant designer AREVA Group has about 10 percent of its U.S. employees in Charlotte and plans to add 200 to 250 jobs by 2012 – mostly engineering positions that start at $60,000 a year.

Those companies together have announced plans to hire hundreds of engineers and complain they can't find quality candidates.

“There definitely is a war for talent, and engineering is the battleground,” said Denise Woernle, manager of corporate communications for Lynchburg, Va.-based AREVA.

The intense competition for the new hires comes even as the overall unemployment rate has been rising. Nationally, unemployment in July hit 5.7 percent, a four-year high. August figures come out this morning.

A national recruiting war for civil engineers started about five years ago. They were needed to design commercial and residential buildings during the construction boom in Charlotte and around the country, said Bob Johnson, dean of UNC Charlotte's Lee College of Engineering.

Also driving the demand has been a recent push to rehabilitate the nation's crumbling infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, especially after the high-profile Minnesota bridge collapse last year, said Carl McDonald, a civil engineer in Charlotte.

At his last job a year ago, the 33-year-old received so many calls from headhunters he had to start screening them. He and four colleagues also received recruiting letters mailed from a rival firm directly to their Charlotte office. The blatant attempt at poaching annoyed their boss, McDonald said.

He later took a new job found through a personal contact.

Demand now has also ramped up for mechanical, computer, electrical and nuclear engineers needed to design the next generation of power plants and green energy projects, including solar panel and windmill farms. Power plants are more complex than homes and commercial buildings and require special design, special cooling pipes and failsafe computer systems.

But there's a national shortage, particularly of mid-career professionals, seasoned and with experience as project leaders, according to Fluor, Shaw, AREVA and other local engineering firms.

“Engineers are either 60 or 20,” said Trey Wills, executive director of operations for Fluor Corp.'s Power Group, which has a two-year-old office and plans to hire 100 engineers in six months.

The shortage stems from the dot-com boom, he said. Too many students with aptitudes for math and computers turned down engineering school and chased gold during those bubble years of the 1990s, he said.

As a result, the number of graduating students in the U.S. with engineering bachelor's degrees dropped 25 percent between 1985 and 2001.

It's starting to creep back up since the bubble burst at the beginning of this decade. But the need for engineering skills has been growing quicker, said Johnson, the UNC Charlotte dean.

The industry average annual salary for first-year engineers is around $50,000. The U.S. Department of Labor forecasts 11 percent growth in the number of engineering jobs until 2016. That's an addition of 160,000 engineers to the current workforce of about 1.5 million.

Irving, Texas-based Fluor is still gearing up and hasn't yet completed a large-scale power plant bid out of its Charlotte office. But Baton Rouge, La.-based Shaw has an $8.2 billion backlog of energy-industry work, the company said.

URS Washington Group, part of San Francisco-base URS Corp., opened a nuclear center in March in Fort Mill, S.C. It plans to hire several hundred engineers and other nuclear plant specialists. The firms are so concerned about staffing for the future some have set up scholarship programs at UNC Charlotte that didn't exist a decade ago.

Matthew Brian Tennent, a 24-year-old senior at UNC Charlotte, has signed with a smaller firm in Charlotte and still has his senior year to complete. He says “all the hard work is starting to pay off.”

The Weddington native has a mid-five-figures salary in hand – the result of several years of recruiting. The firm had given him two summer internships and wanted to lock him down – “in case I get an offer from somewhere else this year,” he said.

Johnson, the dean, has admonished some firms for putting students to work during their senior year when there's still difficult degree work to complete.

The firms are also offering rich referral commissions for successful hires.

Fluor this summer offered existing employees $15,000 for bringing in successful recruits, Wills said. But no one was able to cash in.

Shaw Power Group, which located its operations to Charlotte late last year, also offers recruiting bonuses. The company, which wouldn't disclose the amount, said the commissions make sense because recruiting and hiring someone from scratch normally costs $30,000 to $50,000, including background checks, drug tests and other expenses.

And of course firms are always on the lookout for established engineers at rival firms who want to make a move.

“It's getting very competitive,” said Jeff Merrifield, senior vice president of Shaw's Power Group, who previously spent two terms on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “We certainly have gained many more folks from our competitors.”